Supporting asylum seeker students

Do you need to know if someone is an asylum seeker?

There may be asylum seekers in your classroom without your knowledge.
Some students will choose not to disclose their status, others will inform you.

As an education provider, why would you need to know? We explore this question below.

Some asylum seekers are sensitive to the risk of being ‘labelled’, particularly when the public discourse about asylum seekers is so negative. Or they may come from countries where asylum seekers are stigmatised and feel humiliated to be in a similar situation. Often asylum seekers enjoy the anonymity that studying offers, being ‘just’ a student amongst others.

It is up to the student to decide whether they should share this information about themselves.

ASSET recommends to asylum seeker students that they inform their teacher or course coordinator of their status, as long as they are comfortable with this.  We believe that if teachers are aware of the student’s status and understand the need for confidentiality around this, it enhances the teacher’s ability to provide adequate support to the student. However this is only a recommendation and the student ultimately makes their own decision.

Your ability to support asylum seeker students will be enhanced if your institution has a policy on asylum seekers. If there is a policy, where is it kept? Is it easy to find? Who manages it?

Some TAFEs have a policy to waive material and amenities fees for asylum seekers enrolling in their courses. What is your institution’s policy regarding fee waivers, and concession on materials and amenities?
Read about NMIT’s experience - pdf

Asylum seekers are regularly turned away by VET providers who tell them they do not have access to subsidised places because they do not have a Health Care Card and are not permanent residents.  This happens even though they present with referral forms from the ASRC. Who is the contact person in your institution for matters pertaining to the enrolment of asylum seekers? Are front-line administrative and finance staff aware of asylum seekers’ right to enrol in courses under the ASVET Program?

It is important that education providers develop their understanding of and sensitivity to asylum seekers so that they can respond appropriately if issues arise.

This includes:

  • Lack of financial means: asylum seekers have no access to Centrelink payments. Some receive financial support from the Australian Red Cross (89% of the Newstart allowance) but many don’t. Many rely on charities such as the ASRC for their most basic needs. They may live in crisis accommodation or may be ‘couch surfing’. Getting to class can be difficult if they cannot afford transport or food. Expenses such as books, uniforms or excursions may seem insurmountable.
  •  Interaction with teachers will be impacted by cultural norms, as with other students from overseas. This may be compounded by a sense of shame about their lack of means, wanting to hide from teachers (and other students) their destitution and what they may see as a loss of dignity.
  •  Immigration hearings and other legal milestones are often very destabilising for asylum seekers, as they force them to revisit traumatic experiences. As a result, some will drop out of their studies for days, sometimes weeks, without necessarily informing their education provider.

Generally asylum seekers are like any other student of diverse cultural background new to Australia, and require the same culturally sensitive approach.

This includes being aware that some probing questions can be perceived as insensitive, and that the teacher/student relationship will be framed by different cultural norms.

As a teacher, student counsellor or administrative staff, you may be asked by an asylum seeker student for advice at difficult times in their lives.  As with any other student, the best approach is to listen and look for a solution that allows them to deal with their issues while remaining in the course. Strategies can include:

  •  Attendance: Asylum seeker students may need time away from studying if they are experiencing personal difficulties. If they are not aware of the RTO’s process to be followed in case of absence they may be too embarrassed to come back or feel they will not be allowed to. Please ensure that the process to deal with absences is clearly explained to them.
  •  Communication: Asylum seekers often experience a lot of stress, and this may interfere with their ability to understand information. When communicating complex information about enrolment, fees or exam results, it is worth checking their understanding by making them repeat the information in their own words.
    ASRC Case Study regarding communication - pdf
  •  Support networks: Asylum seekers will often be supported by several agencies, but will have a primary caseworker from one agency only. This caseworker’s role is to provide individual support and make appropriate referrals. Alternatively, as they have all been referred to the course by the ASRC, encourage them to approach ASSET to discuss their situation.

Useful tips on culturally sensitive practice can be found in the Good Practice Principles – Guide for working with refugee young people (pdf), a project of the Victorian Settlement Planning Committee.

While we do believe that asylum seekers’ circumstances may affect their studies, some educational requirements are not negotiable: attendance and punctuality, amongst others.

We ask students to keep their teacher and course coordinator informed if they foresee that they will miss classes.

We also let them know that punctuality is a requirement, and that there is no excuse for frequent tardiness.

Migration issues can be very complex, and it is better that you do not try to help with issues to do with legal hearings and applying for permanent residency.

If you have any concern, please contact ASSET and we will provide information and support, and will liaise with the student if he/she is an ASRC member.